Painting? Photography? Cássio Vasconcellos likes to play tricks with people’s mind. His latest project is an immersive exploration deep into the heart of the rainforest. Light makes its way in through the narrow openings in the canopy. Green dominates. Dense, pastel, unreal. One is reminded of 19th century engravings. The illusion is total. The Brazilian photographer, born in Sao Paulo in 1965, sublimates the forests of his country through lengthy post-production work.
Known for dizzying montages like the clusters of airplanes shown here, Cassio Vasconcellos left the heavens to sink deep into the woods. A Picturesque Voyage Through Brazil shows us just how essential this earthly paradise is to the world. After presenting his work at the Cartier Foundation as part of the “Nous les Arbres” [We the Trees] exhibition, the artist is at the Parisian gallery Gadcollection (currently closed due to the measures taken to combat Covid-19). His work is also scheduled to make an appearance at the La Gacilly street photography festival this summer.
In 2015, you decided to do a project about early European exploration in Brazil; what is the basis of this project?
I was inspired by artists who traveled to Brazil at the start of the 19th century. Three scientific and artistic expeditions came here. No one really knew what existed in the country. Artists like Jean-Baptiste Debret, Hercules Florence, Johann Moritz Rugendas and the Comte de Clarac drew Brazilian forests for the first time. I can only imagine the emotion these artists must have felt. These paintings made their way into the collective imagination of the Brazilian people. I wanted to work on a photographic project that resembles the works of these artists. The name of the exhibition, A Picturesque Voyage Through Brazil, also refers to the titles of the paintings by Debret and Rugendas.
Your photos are particularly reminiscent of the paintings of the Comte de Clarac.
Yes, that was my main source of inspiration. I have never seen such a beautiful representation of a tropical forest. It was one of the first and there has been nothing equal to it since then. It is not necessarily close to reality, as, like the other painters, the Comte de Clarac mixed different species of trees to achieve a total representation of the tropical forest. But there is genuine emotion in the way he constructed his images.
I work on every leaf, every detail
With this work, you were also following in the footsteps of your ancestor Ludwig Riedel, who took part in one of those expeditions.
My mother and my grandmother started telling me stories about the expedition of my great-great-grandfather when I was very young. He was a botanist on the Langsdorff expedition ordered by Tsar Alexander 1st. The biggest expedition ever mounted at the time. It’s part of my personal background.
How did you go about obtaining this unique rendering?
There are several stages. There is the way I take the photo on location with predefined parameters. Then I do a lot of editing on the computer. I work on every leaf, every detail, to obtain this result. Sometimes it takes me two days to process a single photo. It requires working on the image a lot to arrive at this aesthetic that’s close to painting. But the longest part of the process is finding the right photo.
Was it the most difficult part as well?
Yes! Finding the right place to create a composition can take a long time. These places are rare. After hiking for three hours, you come across a place and you can see right away that there’s something interesting to do there. But other times, I’ve walked for hours for nothing.
Where were the photos taken?
Most of the photos weren’t taken in the Amazon but in other Brazilian forests. Many of them were taken in the State of São Paulo and in Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, right in the heart of the city, there is the Tijuca forest. It is the largest urban forest in the world. Around 1860, it was completely destroyed by intensive coffee farming. Its destruction put the city’s drinking water supply at risk. Emperor Pedro II (1825-1891) then ordered its reforestation, also because of environmental concerns. At the time, leaders were already thinking about these kinds of issues. Unlike our President Bolsonaro.
Speaking of which, what is your opinion about the politics of the current president of Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro?
His positions are terrible. It’s a nightmare. He encourages Brazilians to destroy the forests. He cuts subsidies to organizations whose mission is to protect them. He feels that the Indians have too much land, whereas they are the ones protecting the forest. It’s a mentality that is setting us back 50 years.
Is your project political?
I’ve worked on several issues. Historical first, by establishing a dialogue between painting and photography. But mainly, this project poses an ecological question. I hope it will help make people think about how important forests are. Nowadays, with a part of the population that doesn’t give them much thought, it is vital to show why forests need to be preserved. It’s a political work done in an artistic way. I want to use a sense of wonder to touch people.
Interview by Michaël Naulin
For information on Cássio Vasconcellos’ work and his upcoming exhibitions: https://www.cassiovasconcellos.com/
GADCOLLECTION : https://www.gadcollection.com/fr/